What does a tomato, soybean, and McDonald’s French fry have in common? They are all some of the most commonly genetically modified foods sold on the market today. By using the genetic information from one organism, and inserting or modifying it into another organism, scientists can make food crops stay fresher, grow bigger, and have the crops create their own pesticides. Nevertheless, the technology to modify genes has surpassed its practicality. Genetically modified foods need to be removed from everyday agriculture because of the threat they pose to human health, the environment, and the impact on global economy.
Genetically modified (GM) foods could produce new toxic substances, and/or allergens. A gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into the DNA of a soybean plant to increase the nutritional value of the soybean. However, this particular gene in the GM soybean also produced an allergen (a substance that causes allergic reactions in people). Fortunately, the plant was not put into production (McHughen 119). Another example is of a GM tomato called “FLAVR SAVR”. The tomato is larger, tastier, and stays fresher longer than commercial tomatoes on the market. Combining conventional tomato genes with the genes of an arctic trout produces the “FLAVR SAVR”. Nevertheless, questions such as “Will people with sea food allergies be able to consume the tomato?” and “Will the trout genes in the tomato enable new bacteria growth, and thereby make the tomato hazardous to eat?” have still not been answered. This causes the “FLAVR SAVR” to be a potential hazard to human health (McHughen 14, 112). Since technology is new with regards to genetics, there is no real way of knowing whether genetically modified foods would take a negative impact on the body. An incident that occurred in 1989 concerning the nutritional supplement L- Tryptophan is one way of testing the long-term effects of a GM food (Background on L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxy L-tryptophan and the eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The manufacturer had apparently altered its manufacturing process to speed up production, and had not realized the toxic side effects. However, it caused a potentially fatal illness called Eosinophilia Myolgia Syndrome in which 37 people died and 1500 more were permanently disabled (Background on L-tryptophan and 5-hydroxy L-tryptophan and the eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, U.S. Food and Drug Administration). Therefore, it was taken off the market shortly after the reports of widespread illness among consumers of the supplement. Another two examples of diseases that have been created by GM crops are glufosinate (Hart 21), which causes birth defects in mammals, and glyphosate (Hart 88), which is now linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Therefore, it is evident that the general public is the guinea pig for GM food, and today’s drugs may not be able to combat the diseases that may arise from eating the food.
Superbugs are created when genes transfer from one species to another, and if an antibiotic-resistant or pesticide-resistant gene were to transfer from an organism into a disease creating bacteria, then an antibiotic-resistant or pesticide-resistant bug would be created (Miller 83). This applies to bacteria and viruses that are symbiotically related. Gene modification is indirectly making life resistant to diseases, and these bacteria and viruses will adapt to the new form of life and create new disorders. Furthermore, GM crops may make the “normal” biological pest spray obsolete. This is because pests will soon develop resistance to the spray because of the widespread planting of GM crops. Nevertheless, superbug pesticides have not yet been manufactured, nor have superbug antibiotics been created (Miller 92). Consequently, the health risks for humans through superbug infections or by eating GM food is very serious, and the consequences that may come about have the potential to be life threatening.
Genetic engineering of food crops has the potential to affect the biodiversity of a region in effectively two ways. First, wild populations of weed may be replaced by GM crop/weed, due to the GM crop spreading outside the crop field and interacting with natural weed and slowly becoming GM weed. Since GM crops are produced to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides, there is the possibility that they could invade wild grasslands and other places and prosper because of these special characteristics. If this happened, the native grasses would be unable to compete and biodiversity would be lost in these regions. Also, many genetically engineered crops contain anti-viral genes and there is the potential that these genes could combine to form new and dangerous strains of viruses, which could destroy specific crops. Although, to date, there is no direct evidence of these occurring naturally, the potential is clearly increasing (UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition. What is happening to Agricultural Biodiversity?). The second way in which the biodiversity of a region is potentially affected is by the decreasing crop varieties that are being planted. This is a problem already existing in agriculture today, and results in a loss of genetic variety within crop cultures. Farmers being forced to use only patented seeds are an example of a potential decrease in biodiversity. If traditional seed varieties are used, farmers will be at a financial disadvantage due to better tasting, better looking crops produced by farmers using GM seeds. In the U.S., and some other countries, laws have been passed and are currently in effect stating that the use of non-patented seeds is prohibited. This will restrict the crops to a few species, leaving them more at risk to new pests that may form (UK Agricultural Biodiversity Coalition. What are the underlying causes of the Losses of Agricultural Biodiversity?).
The European community is by far the most anti-GM, so to speak, when it comes to the retail of GM food in their supermarkets (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, Consumer attitudes and decision-making with regard to genetically modified food products). Regulations are being imposed on the European Parliament, individual European nations, and some stores themselves have all imposed restrictions on GM foods. Manufacturers must label all foods that might have genetically altered ingredients. This includes food with genetically manufactured organisms, food with an intentionally modified molecular structure, and food that has been isolated for microorganisms, fungi, and algae. Furthermore, the genetically altered food must not mislead the consumer, present any danger to the consumer, or differ from the food that it is intended to replace so that the altered food is a nutritional disadvantage to the consumer (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, Development of methods to identify foods produced by means of genetic engineering). This legislation has now created trade barriers for food coming into Europe – some imported food is genetically modified and creates a risk to the people’s health and safety. Nevertheless, because some supermarkets in Europe have decided to be non-GM only, this has created a competitive disadvantage for the “half”-GM supermarkets. This response to consumer pressure is also having an effect on some companies or countries that cannot meet the legislative needs, and are obliged to lose markets and/or market shares (Tackling Food Safety Concerns over GMO’s, European network safety assessment of genetically modified food crops). If the world finally agrees to the consumption of GM food, European countries will be the last to “give-in” to the more lenient regulations.
If one is to ask a North American if the product he or she is eating contains GM food, he or she will most likely show a blank stare. This is because regulation of GM food in North America is relatively relaxed when compared to Europe (Borger, second paragraph). Since the manufacturer is not required to label their products, the consumer is oblivious to buying GM food at the supermarket. Agriculture and technology are both being heavily invested in the United States. Profit is an important driving force for the developed world, and agricultural exports make up a large portion of exports from the United States (Borger, third paragraph). Since the demand for food is always increasing, the demand to produce more food at a faster rate requires the need for better biotechnology to be put into practice. And because of the lax laws in effect for the United States, and Canada, North Americans are “in the dark” with regards to what they are eating during their meals. North Americans are not educated about the risks of GM food, nor are they aware of where to find information regarding how much GM food is in their groceries (Borger, 12th paragraph). This poses a serious threat to the potential health of North Americans, as they are nothing but “lab rats” waiting for their first abnormal “twitch”.
Human health can be seen as the greatest factor when considering the manufacturing of GM food. This is because of the few diseases and viruses that have been discovered which formed through the use of GM food. Also, the potential for new diseases and/or viruses through the use of GM food is increasing, and people are not aware of the risks. Antibiotics or pesticides have not yet been created to combat the superbug, and this is a concern for humans, as it will infect people, and crops altogether. There is a potential for the biodiversity to decrease because of gene transfers from one species to another, creating more powerful crops, which may take over the natural populations of weeds and grasslands. An additional way for the biodiversity to decrease is by farmers planting only a single variety of crop, thus wiping out the varied species needed to keep the diversity within crop fields. Europeans are the most aware of GM food, and are taking the necessary precautions and legislative actions to protect themselves against the use of GM food. However, North Americans are the least aware of GM food, and their government has not yet educated their citizens on the risks of GM food. There are too many risks involved in the use of GM food, and its removal from the agricultural and biotechnological industries will benefit human health, the environment, and global economy.
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by Chelsea Powell
figures by Anna Maurer
Summary: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering methods. Although genetic engineering is a common and essential practice in biotechnology, its specific use in crops is controversial. The key steps involved in genetic engineering are identifying a trait of interest, isolating that trait, inserting that trait into a desired organism, and then propagating that organism. Methods for genetic manipulation have rapidly improved over the last century from simple selective breeding, to inserting genes from one organism into another, to more recent methods of directly editing the genome.
What qualifies as a GMO?
A common misconception is that any animal or plant considered to be outside the realm of our reference for “natural” is a GMO. Images of abnormally large cows and tomatoes come to mind. However, the scientific community and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) use a stricter definition for a GMO: an animal or plant that has been created through genetic engineering . Genetic engineering is a term used to describe biotechnological methods used by scientists to directly manipulate an organism’s genome. Under this definition GMOs do not include plants or animals made by selective breeding, or animals modified by being given hormone supplements or antibiotics. In fact, we do not currently eat any meat products considered to be GMOs, although farm animals may be fed a genetically modified crop .
The main goal of the majority of genetic engineering performed on food is to increase crop yield and/or to improve the nutrient value in animal feed. No genetically engineered crops on the market in the United States have been modified to be unusually large (Table 1). Pictures of extremely large vegetables used to support the “Franken-food” image of GMOs are probably not GMOs at all; an unusually large vegetable would more likely be created through less controversial methods of selective breeding or nutrient supplements, not genetic engineering.
The process of genetic engineering
Genetic engineering is widely used in biological research. Mouse models are engineered for biomedical studies, bacteria are engineered to produce medications such as insulin, and crops are engineered for agriculture. All of these products of genetic engineering were created using the same basic steps: identifying a trait of interest, isolating that genetic trait, inserting that trait into the genome of a desired organism, and then growing the engineered organism (Figure 1). These steps are explained in detail below, using examples from Monsanto as the details of their technologies are publicly available. Other major companies such as Syngenta, BASF, Dow, Bayer, and Du Pont use similar methods, as outlined in brief on their respective websites [3, 4, 5, 6, 7].
Step 1: Identify a trait of interest
In order to identify a desirable new trait scientists most often look to nature. Successful discovery of a new genetic trait of interest is often a combination of critical thinking and luck. For example, if researchers are searching for a trait that would allow a crop to survive in a specific environment, they would look for organisms that naturally are able to survive in that specific environment. Or if researchers are aiming to improve the nutritional content of a crop, they would screen a list of plants that they hypothesize produce a nutrient of interest.
An example of a trait currently in GMOs that was identified through this combination of luck and critical thinking is tolerance to the herbicide Roundup (see this article). Monsanto created “Roundup Ready” plants after finding bacteria growing near a Roundup factory that contained a gene that allowed them to survive in the presence of the herbicide . Although it is not on the market in the United States, Syngenta has designed Golden Rice with an increased amount of pro-vitamin A, which the human body may turn into the vitamin A (see this article). Researchers at Syngenta identified the gene sequence that produces pro-vitamin A and compiled a list of plants to screen with that sequence . With a little luck, there was a plant in nature, maize, that contained a gene that would make Golden Rice produce pro-vitamin A at a level that could meet the nutritional needs of vitamin A deficient communities.
Step 2: Isolate the genetic trait of interest
Comparative analysis is used to decode what part of an organism’s genetic makeup contains the trait of interest. The genomes of plants with the trait are compared to genomes in the same species without the trait, with the goal of identifying genes present only in the former . The genomes of different species with the same trait may also be compared in order to identify a gene, as was the case while developing Golden Rice . If there is no database of genetic information for comparison, scientists will purposefully delete, or “knock out,” parts of the genome of interest until the desired trait is lost, thereby identifying the genes that lead to the trait.
In order to expedite this process, Monsanto has developed and patented a method known as seed chipping . Through this method Monsanto shaves off parts of seeds for high-throughput genetic sequencing while leaving the rest of the seeds viable for planting. This creates a genetic database for plants before they are even grown, where a barcode system is used to match plants to their genotypes. Researchers may then use this database to identify new traits of interest as well as to optimize the desirable traits in a crop by selecting for the best genotypes based on plant phenotypes.
Step 3: Insert the desired genetic trait into a new genome
Altering the genome of plant seeds is difficult due to their rigid structure. Many biotech companies use “gene guns” that shoot metal particles coated with DNA into plant tissue with a .22-caliber charge . Monsanto no longer uses gene guns, but instead takes advantage of bacteria, called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, that naturally invade seeds and alter plants by inserting pieces of their own DNA into a plant’s genome.
In biotechnology research it is common to genetically engineer bacteria to produce a desired protein. This is done by using enzymes to cut and paste a DNA strand of interest into a plasmid, which is a small, circular molecule of DNA . Bacteria are then shocked using heat or electricity so that the cells accept the engineered plasmid. By modifying A. tumefaciens, which is easier to modify than plant seeds themselves, researchers may use the bacteria’s naturally invasive behavior as a Trojan horse for inserting desirable traits into a crop’s genome.
Step 4: Growing the GMO
After a genetic trait has been successfully inserted into an organism’s genome, the modified organism must then be able to grow and replicate with its newly engineered genome. First, the genotype of the organisms must be checked so that researchers are only propagating organisms in which the genome was modified correctly.
Biotech companies invest large sums into keeping these plants alive and reproducing once they have been successfully created. The companies use special climate-controlled growth chambers, and biologists often check on the plants by hand to make sure that they are growing as expected .
During this process biotech companies will use automated machines, such as Monsanto’s GenV planter, in order to track plants and calculate optimal seeding and growth conditions to create the best possible yields. GMO seeds often come with instructions on spacing and nutrition that result from these studies.
Future directions for the creation of GMOs
Humans’ ability to modify crops for improved yields and nutrients in a given environment is a keystone of agriculture. The technological advancement from selective breeding to genetic engineering has opened up a large realm of possibilities for the future of our food. As techniques for genetic engineering, such as new RNAi- and nuclease-based technologies that allow for direct modification of the genome (see this article and this article), steadily improve, our ability to create new GMOs will also grow . As our scientific capabilities expand it is essential that we discuss the ethics and ideals surrounding GMOs so that we may effectively and safely use this technology in a way that is acceptable to the public.
Table 1. Summary of the FDA’s Inventory of Completed Biotechnology Consultations on Genetically Engineered Foods as of June 30th, 2015. Crops listed in order of relative abundance of genetically engineered crop consultations (corn having the most consultations). This information is available to the public:
Chelsea Powell is a PhD student in the Chemical Biology Program at Harvard University.
This article is part of the August 2015 Special Edition, Genetically Modified Organisms and Our Food.
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